Saturday, 7 August 2021

By sail to Orkney - a chocolate bar adventure

A few weeks ago a small package of our chocolate bars went on an extraordinary adventure of their very own (am I jealous?  You bet!).  The talented and adventurous writer, Linda Cracknell approached me with a magnificent proposition – she was sailing from Ullapool to Orkney on the Bessie Ellen, and what did I think of the idea of her taking a small cargo of chocolate bars with her and delivering them to a deli in Kirkwall.  Absolutely yes!  And for so many reasons…


Bessie Ellen en route to Orkney.  Thanks to Chrys Tremththanmor for the photo  

Linda has been researching her family history, learning a lot about her sea-faring ancestors in the South West.  One of her relatives through her mother’s family, Captain John (Jack) Chichester was keen to develop his business transporting heavy cargo, and he bought the Bessie Ellen in 1906.  She was a young ship then, a 120ft trading ketch built in Plymouth in 1904.  Despite the slow demise of sail over the early 20th century, they were able to use her 150 ton capacity to transport bulk cargos around UK and Ireland. I wonder if she ever transported cocoa or chocolate?  The age of sail though was on its way out, and in 1947 she was sold to a shipper in Denmark where she transported goods around the Baltic.  Eventually, she was converted to be powered by an engine.   Her current skipper, Nikki Alford, took her on in 2000 and has fully restored her to a beautiful sailing ship.  The cargo hold is now a dining room and living space for guests, who can go on sailing adventures around the UK, Ireland and beyond. Find out more about this beautiful ship here (and maybe book your own adventure!).  Linda’s idea was to take a ‘small cargo’ with her to Orkney and as she had a friend running a deli in Kirkwall – this all linked up very nicely!

Linda taking possession of the cargo in Aberfeldy

Skipper Nikki with the cargo on the Bessie Ellen

My own family history has links to the sea as well – my mother’s great grandfather John William Pyman was a Sea Captain in the 19th century based from the north of England.  Tragically he was lost at sea in June 1879 and as all his wealth went down with that ship, his widow and three children became destitute (and what happened to them is another story in itself!).  He did not own the ship, nor the cargo, but sea captains at the time were allowed to develop a small business on board, selling goods to the crew during the voyage, which would allow them to earn a little more than their pay:  that stock would have been their life savings.  We are not sure where his boat was lost, or where he sailed to and from; my mother says that her father just used to say ‘round the Cape’ – which we assume meant Cape of Good Hope and so maybe on to India.  Whether he ever did the transatlantic route or if he ever transported cocoa – these things we just don’t know.

Freyja at Stromness Books & Prints taking the cargo, and holding for collection by Duncan from Kirkness & Gorie

And I have long been inspired by the transatlantic adventures of the Tres Hombres – bringing chocolate, cocoa, sugar and rum from the Caribbean by sail to the UK and Europe.  The slow and dedicated re-establishing of wind powered cargo transport has been happening quietly over the last decade or so.  Ten years or so ago, Mott Green of Grenada Chocolate Company worked with Tres Hombres to transport chocolate bars made on Grenada to UK and Europe, and this started a small flow of wind-powered transport of chocolate and cocoa to makers in the UK ever since.  Falmouth-based company New Dawn Traders have developed trading routes linking transatlantic trade with the UK, Portugal, France and The Netherlands. A few years back I was excited to see that they were going to be calling in at Oban and Inverness, and hoped to order some of their Caribbean chocolate.  Sadly this trip did not happen in the end – but I have been hopeful ever since that they might replan it.


Duncan after picking up the bars from the bookshop in Stromness

So – lots of reasons why I enthusiastically accepted Linda’s offer.  And what did we send?  The cargo was a small box of ten chocolate bars, tasting of Perthshire in early summer – Elderflower flavoured white chocolate and Scots pine plain chocolate.  Linda stressed that weather and tides might mean that they might not make it to Orkney at all – and so, just as in my great great gandfather’s time – she could always sell it to the crew and passengers on the boat itself!

The chocolate bars reach their destination shelf in the fabulous Kirkness & Gorie Deli in Kirkwall

Many, many thanks to all those involved in this amazing daisy chain of delivery!  Linda especially, as well as Nikki and the Bessie Ellen, Freyja and Duncan.  And here's to a future of sustainable transport!

Friday, 21 August 2020

Fruit leathers

No, they don’t sound terribly appetising do they?  We need to come up with a different name – but this old traditional one does describe their appearance so well and gives them a certain character.  But it gives no hint to their intensity and flavour impact – and the surprise is part of the pleasure maybe.

Leathers are a traditional technique for preserving fruits; made well, they will keep fruits as a snack sweetmeat through the winter. They require a lot less sugar than jam or jelly, and pack more flavour.  Made carefully, they don’t need much cooking either and so can keep flavours bright and intense.

We have a ‘duplicated’/mimeograghed copy of fruit preserving leaflet from the 80s in which leathers feature prominently, but it wasn’t until my Wild Wonders course last year that I was re-introduced to their possibility.  I struggle with how to manage fruits in the chocolates – they are wet, acidic and often don’t carry intense enough flavour to make a great impact in the ganache.  Acquiring a dehydrator has helped – and drying some fruits helps manage the moisture without too much boiling or added sugar; raspberries and sea buckthorn work particularly well in this way.

But leathers offer a way to process fruits and weave round chocolate in a different way from ganache filled chocolates, and I began to play around with them last year.  Blaeberries were my first real success;  I went to a great talk by Eva Gunnare, a Swedish forager, as part of the Foraging Fortnight and she gave us blueberry leather and described how simple it was to make.  You can reduce your fruit pulp by simmering and boiling, but better still – reduce through dehydration.  The sugar added can then be more about taste than preservation as you are removing excess water through the dehydrating process not the boiling/simmering/sugar concentration.  This is why freezer jams for rasps and strawberries are so delicious – preservation is managed through freezing and not sugar concentration and moisture reduction through boiling – the flavours are fresher, brighter and more intense.

For wet fruits like blaeberries leather making was the answer – get it right and you have a soft, slightly chewy, intensely flavoured nibble – that is just perfect dipped in the right chocolate.  We made these for the Wild Food Festival last year and they disappeared really quickly.

They are though, a lot of work.  Foraging wild fruits is in itself a labour requiring meditative levels of patience and endurance.  Blaeberries, raspberries, wild strawberries (actually I have never gathered enough of these at any one time to do anything other than eat them!) – but the joy of leathers is that you can make from any fruit or vegetable I imagine.  So we have tried rhubarb, Japanese knotweed, elderberries and sloes.

I cannot really give you a recipe, more like a process.  So much depends on the fruit, the flavour you want, and what equipment you have for dehydrating.  I will describe the process for raspberries and blaeberries, and hope that this serves as enough of a guide to help you get started.

Pick over your fruit to remove any mouldy or badly damaged fruits; remove stalks and leaves.  Wash carefully and drain.  Weigh the fruit, and add a third of that weight in sugar (less if you think the fruit already sweet).  Mix in and leave covered for a few hours – stirring occasionally to help bring out the juice.  By the end of this period, there should be lots of juice, possibly submerging all the fruit.


Quickly bring to the boil, just to kill off any bacteria or yeasts; if you don’t mind the seeds, then mush up into a pulp.  Otherwise strain into a bowl; using the back of a metal spoon, force as much of the juice and soft fruit pulp through the sieve, until you have only seeds and skin in the sieve.  If the strained liquid is really thin, you could heat and evaporate off some of the excess water – but be careful about monitoring the taste, as this will change with prolonged cooking.

Prepare trays to go in the dehydrator – maybe line with silicon baking paper, and pour a thin layer of the pulp (say 0.5 to 1cm deep – depending on how thick you would like your leather to be; remember it will shrink considerably through drying so take this into account *).

Dehydrate on a low heat – 115 to 120 F – until tacky enough to handle.  Remove from the paper, peeling it away carefully.  To store, lay the sheet onto fresh paper and then roll up with the paper so that there is sheet of paper between each layer of the leather.  Wrap in a plastic bag, or in a sealed food box.  When you want to use, unroll and cut into strips.

Have fun!

*I tried making a rhubarb leather once that was too thin and it dehydrated to hand-made paper thinness – infact thinking about it, it was hand made paper – edible and beautiful pink green mottled colouring.  OK – a whole new possible craft industry – edible fruit papers!

Thursday, 27 February 2020

How to judge a chocolate?

The Academy of Chocolate was established to promote the concept of ‘good chocolate’ – chocolate that is ethical, sustainable, creative and delicious.  They hold an Awards competition every year, and their Bronze, Silver and Gold awards are coveted and adorn very fine chocolates from all over the world.

I saw a call out for judges for this year’s competition, and as I was not entering anything myself, approached the organisers to see if I would be eligible; I am not a member of the Association, I hold no formal qualitifications in Patisserie or chocolate making – but it seems all I needed was a passion for good chocolate, and that along with a reasonable good understanding of working with chocolate – would qualify me.

As I looked forward to the experience, and told people the reason for my trip to London, I was tickled by their amusement of the concept of spending three days judging chocolate (was it going to be a Britains’ got Talent style affair, with Chocolatiers vying for the top award, me and other judges sitting like Simon Cowell pooring derision and scorn on entries?).  I also realised that I had a number of anxieties about putting myself forward for this; do I know enough?  Are my tastes in chocolate too narrow, or at worst at odds with what is ‘popular’?  are my taste buds discerning enough?

I was put at ease very quickly by both AoC organisers and other volunteer judges as soon as I arrived.  It was wonderfully relaxed, and as I chatted with others I found that I was not the only newby, and not the only chocolate maker.  Participants ranged from food journalists, chefs, chocolate makers, interested foodies, a coffee taster.  We were mainly but not all from the UK – but we covered a range of professions and a range of food cultures.

The judging room is large, with three tables situated as far apart from each other as possible!  At each end there are tables with entries waiting to be judged;  small plates of 5 or 6 samples of each entry, nervously waiting their turn to be scrutinised (Ok, they are just chocolates sitting on a plate – but out of their sumptuous packaging they do look vulnerable, exposed and out of place – and hence, a little nervous).  There are glossy brightly coloured and decorated ones, plain ones with no décor, simple, elegant ones – all sorts.  The plain ones seem more anxious, maybe wishing they had a little colour to them – or maybe quietly confident as they felt they would star when it comes to flavour. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds – the makers are not in the room and so these small confections are their representatives and embody the nerves of their makers, just as much as they embody their creativity and ambition.

In a separate room, busy people organise the entries.  Table tops, trolleys and benches are piled high with all manner of boxes – all the entries having been sent from all over the world – carefully packaged to ensure that they arrive in the best possible state.

I am allocated a table number and join my other four group colleagues.  Introductions, some guiding wisdom from Silvija Davidson of AoC,and we start – presented with three entries to assess.  As we finish those, more are randomly delivered to the table – some enrobed or panned, some white chocolate, some nut categories – constant variety to keep our senses busy.  We set about dissecting and scrutinising people’s hard worked creations; inspecting the product visually first – is it well presented, does it look pleasing?  Then cut through the middle to see how well it is constructed and put together.  Smell, look and then taste.  We are scrutinising people’s livelihoods and it feels deeply uncomfortable; to respect that responsibility, we have to stay true to a critical line; is this well made? Is it balanced? Does it give joy?  Even a chocolate I personally don’t like can give joy – in texture, look and ambition – and it is heartening that we as a group are really respectful of that.  We are not judging on just ‘do I like it or not’.

C, and we start – presented with three

By the end of the first session, I am sugared out; my mouth is complaining.  I stop at a café on my way home thinking a coffee will sort me out, but it just seems to be another assault on my overworked taste buds!  I have read that people crave salad after a session of judging – clean, crisp, cool brightness and I fully get that.  A cool swim after frenzied overindulgence

Judges are volunteers and so some do one or two sessions, others do more; for me, this goes on for two more days. We taste on; each session I find myself with a different group and the table has a slightly different dynamic about it.  I learn to refresh my palette more often with water, plain bread and thin sliced apples.  I gain confidence in putting forward my thoughts and observations to the group.  In my last session I am asked to be the scribe – and have to note and summarise the group’s feedback and thoughts on each entry – this will be the feedback that makers receive – so it needs to be clear and constructive, helpful to the maker to further improve their product – another level of seriousness and respect for the entries.

In 3 days I think I might have tasted about 120 or more chocolates; chocolates from all over the world with flavours ranging from the familiar – hazelnuts, raspberries, to fruits I have never heard of before (longans), through peppers and teas, liqueurs that spill out of their chocolate shells, to algae and fish!  Each one a discrete package that represents its makers creativity, expertise and ambition.  Some with stories attached (the descriptions of the chocolates that entrants are asked to give range from a straightforward overview of the chocolate, to stories of local traditions that lie behind the flavours used).  This all helps in the judging.

I come to the end of my three days – the judging goes on for another couple of days for this part of the competition (the filled chocolates) and will go on for the next month or more with judging of bars.  Those entries that we identified as silver or gold will go to the grand jury for confirmation of award.  Once in a while, we completely disagreed on a chocolate as a table, and when opinion varied wildly, it felt fairer to ask another table to give a second opinion.

I really enjoyed the experience – and home again and making chocolates, it has made me conscious of my own practice and challenged my own approach to chocolate making.  I had volunteered to learn, meet other people within the sector, see what other people are doing – and achieved all that.  I am looking forward to when the awards are announced, knowing that I was involved in a small way.

Thanks so much to AoC for involving me – and to all their hard work in bringing all this together.  And maybe next year, I might enter the competition!

Monday, 26 August 2019

Seeking Finnish wild treasures: berries, boletes, bears and boreal forest

My phone has wierdly remained in Finland time since we came back, and it is helping me hold on to what was such a great trip – so interesting, so enjoyable, so tasty.  We went to Karelia – the eastern-most province of Finland – an area that has endless forests – interspersed with more lakes and ponds than farmland.  The small town of Ilomantsi was our home for a few days, set a-buzz (literally) by the Bear Festival – chain saw sculptures of bears ‘in motion’ (this year’s festival theme) emerged from great spruce logs lining the street when we arrived.  We watched each time we passed as sculptures gradually came into focus – from rough outline, to angular forms and eventually subtle expressions of movement and character.

We did so much in just a few days; we cooked in a Lutheran church – an amazing three course lunch that saw us raiding flowerbeds and nearby woodlands to embellish both table and plate; we forayed into woodlands – giddy with the abundance of the familiar and new that we found there; we visited an award winning distillery and got tipsy and a little loud tasting Arctic Blue and Black Tea gins; we made fresh cheese, walked beautiful farms and milked inky-eyed, long-eye-lashed gentle cows at Cow Camp, guided and led by our equally gentle and knowledgeable hosts; we heard stories of wolf and bear attacks, the realities of living on the edge of the great boreal forest, as well as lessons in plant use, and cooking fungi; we had an interesting morning hearing from two government projects within the Forestry Service, LUKE and Lulume, on how foraging works in Finland – marvelling at the ‘everyman’s right’ to pick, and sell (tax free). 

We drank coffee at woodland fires, were treated to the most generous and extraordinary hospitality throughout – delicious food, generous sharing of knowledge and glimpses into rural lives in Finland. The focus of our visit was the Wild Food Festival in Ilomantsi and this was great fun – we visited on the Saturday and ate all sorts of wild delicacies – tar icecream, wood flour biscuits, wild flavoured juices, bear meat for those that wished it – using mobile phones and google translate to communicate when the international language of Latin plant names failed us.

Too much really to take in, and definitely too much to describe.  However, a few highlights and thoughts for me were:

  • how ‘normalised’ wild foods are – starting with blueberry juice on the Finnair flight, in restaurants, blue berries everywhere, in sweets, icecreams, at every meal (both in savoury and sweet dishes), in supermarket products.  Not just blueberries – so many other wild berries as well – crowberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, and lovely to see sea buckthorn a ‘common berry’.  Our gorgeous host Mari (such fun, continuosly ensuring that we had all we needed, translating, guiding) knew plants because she just did – brought up using them, and still using them as food and drink.
  • so straightforward – everyman’s right; tax free sales;  Mari mentioned that there is a license system – for which you need to demonstrate that you know key species (wish I learned a little more about this).  At different times and in different groups in Scotland, we have tied ourselves in knots trying to develop codes of practice, should be have licenses to pick commercially – but in Finland they seem to have a simple system based essentially on trust and tradition.  We were spellbound to hear that ordinary people collect 50 million kilos of berries a year (20m kgs are then sold on) and 5-10 million kg of fungi (1.5 million kg sold on); the stats themselves are amazing but also amazed that the stats exist, that wild gathered products are quantified in this way. The importance of wild foods to local domestic, local and national economies is both recognised and supported; the presentations from LUKE and Lulume outlined how this is being developed through widespread research and support to private forest owners.

  • to be somewhere so abundant and rich. I am sure not all of Finland is like this – around cities and towns, and where there is more pressure of agriculture on land it might be very different – but from the presentation given to us by the forestry guys well over half of the land is. In and around Ilomantsi – the forest and marsh are abundant.  The forest crown is quite open, allowing light through to the forest floor which supports a wonderland of berries, fungi, and mosses.  Every footstep we took, there were carpets of plants – mainly familiar – ladies mantle, cranesbills, rose bay willowherbs, thistles, nettles, raspberries - so familiar but so surprising to see so much abundance and diversity.  And it proved a perfect nursery ground for the fungi novices of the group – a gentle but varied introduction to our up-coming fungi studies.

For me, to be surrounded and immersed in Boreal forst was a real treat – we have the same tree species in the UK – Scots pine, Norway spruce, birch, aspen and alder – but not so often in these open mixed stands.  A particular delight was the abundance of aspen – one of my favourite trees – rare to come across in Scotland, but tall and elegant in these Finnish woods – and the sound of the breeze through the tremulous canopy still fills my ears.  On the last day we had a wonderful walk through beautiful mixed woodland, coming out by a large pond – skirted with water lilies, bog bean, mosses, cranberries and an abundance of different berries.  We fell to picking and eating, in a frenzy – brought to a climax by the sight of large purple splodges on the path – bear poo!
There is so much I realise I did not ask whilst there; for example, what is the concern story there – I think I was blinded by so much going on, that forgot to think about why there is a LEADER project in the area.  Our own project in Scotland is driven by an urge to reconnect people with wild foods and nature, but what is theirs?  from where we stand it seems sorted, but clearly not, as otherwise there would be no project.

Could one of the issues be a narrowing of variety?  Even in this culture, there seems to be a ‘pop’ list – the berries (blue, cran, cloud, crow), mushrooms, (ceps and milk caps – despite the huge abundance of fungi – in the festival it seemed only ceps were available and dried), plants (goutweed, ladies mantle, meadowsweet).   We are much the same – elderflower, berries, chanterelles, ceps (amongst the foodies), brambles, wild garlic.  Our list is shorter, but it is the same issue, of expanding the familiarity with different plants and in different uses. 

Even with so much tradition and widespread knowledge, it was wonderful to see the new energies in play – the gin distiller, the young chefs and many of the stall holders at the festival.

Wild Wonders

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be given a place on a training programme funded by LEADER, called Wild Wonders.  It is a year long programme, led by Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods, and our group of 12 apostles meet up with him monthly to learn more about foraging, using wild ingredients and how to introduce and guide others to a greater connection with our natural larder.  We are a mixed group of food makers (chefs, small food businesses), herbalists, guides, community educators all brought together with a common thirst to learn and explore the wild larder’s as well as our own potential.  It has been such a wonderful tonic for me – to expand my own knowledge, find a ‘tribe’ of like minded folk, explore different parts of Scotland, and meet other people using foraging at the heart of their businesses. 

I have already started to make new flavours as a result of the course, and constantly thinking about new ways to incorporate flavours into the chocolate.  As part of the Wild Wonders programme we are organising a Wild Food Festival, as part of the wider Foraging Fortnight in early September.  Our festival will be on 14th September, at beautiful Cardross Estate.   

Being LEADER, it is a cross cultural programme, working with groups in Finland, Lithuania and Latvia.  We have just had a great trip to Finland to a Wild Food Festival in Karelia province and we are looking forward to spending time with foraging friends from Finland and Latvia at our September event.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Chocoa 2019, Amsterdam

As a small business in a rural area, it is easy to feel a little remote from the chocolate making community out there - I don't even bump into Iain Burnett very often and he only works 10 miles or so down the road!  So, with great excitement and with pockets full of business cards, I set off to meet fellow chocolate makers and adventurers at Chocoa 2019 in Amsterdam, an annual gathering devoted to all things cocoa and chocolate.  It is an extraordinary event - bringing together 'big chocolate'  - the Cargills, Mars and Callebauts, as well as Ministers of Trade and Cocoa from cocoa producing countrues aroud the world - and (where I fit in!) the smaller craft makers, and the various business small, medium and large who are involved in the 'value chain' of cocoa to chocolate. 

Map of Amsterdam port and waterfront
Amsterdam is the centre of cocoa in Europe - the port receives cocoa from around the world, stores and then dispatches it through Europe - and there are also chocolate processing businesses along the industrial waterfront of the city outskirts. For some reason, I had not really known or thought much about this - but it was with real pleasure and interest that I met Astrid Fisser, an amazing woman whose job is to organise all the cocoa logistics in the Port, and she told me all about its role in the cocoa supply chain and then how cocoa is moved on through Europe - mainly through the waterways and by train.

My first participation was in Women Network in Cocoa and Chocolate - an afternoon workshop that brought women from all over the world; through a number of fun introductory activities we got a sense of the global reach of the group (huge), the breadth across the value chain (from growers to bloggers), and rather alarmingly the disparity in how much chocolate we all ate a week!  We were led through a brilliant session on negotiating - so no haggling at my market stalls in the future!

On Thursday and Friday two events ran concurrently - the Chocolate Makers Forum and a Trade fair.  The trade fair covered two huge halls within the Beurs van Berlage - a very handsome early 20th century building in the heart of Amsterdam - originally built as home to the Stock Exchange.  As you walked into the Trade fair, you were met by a wonderful smell of cocoa - an earthy, slightly fruity and chocolatey aroma - and a buzz of conversation and exchange.  There were many west African growers represented - projects from Sierra Leone, Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon - brilliant to see as these are on the whole dominated by the large chocolate companies.  Companies also from East Africa - Uganda and Tanzania, including tree to bar makers.  Asia was also well represented - India, Philipines,and Vietnam.

It is a huge sector, but possibly also a small world - lots of greeting of old friends and colleagues, hearty discussions about bean variety, fermentation, sugar types and flavouring.   A couple of years ago, talk at such events was all about cocoa genetics; now it is 'post harvest' - the fermentation and drying processes that convert the raw cocoa bean into the commodity that is shipped, stored, roasted and ground into chocolate.  Lots of conversations about sustainability - the pros and cons of certification, the bottom line being how to ensure farmers are paid enough to keep them in cocoa, and attract young people into the industry.

One of the most exciting meetings for me was with Samuel Baruta - the founder of Marou - who it turns out has been to Aberfeldy!  Marou make the gorgeous Ben Tre couveture that Dewars have matched with their Aberfeldy Single Malt - so very sorry I did not happen to have a bottle at hand to present to Samuel!

What was amazing was the number of companies converting cocoa into chocolate in the country of origin - a trend that would see the value this adds staying in the cocoa growing countries - as well as skills developed, etc.  The chocolates were wonderful as well - my particular favourite a Vietnamese business VNCacao.

I had a fabulous chat about Indonesia cocoa with a chap who is setting out to source from Aceh, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Flores - it was great to catch up on how things have devoloped in the fine cocoa since my two visits there many years ago.

The big questions asked were mainly about sustainability; I am left with thoughts about integrity of supply chain, as well as are we at 'peak' single origin craft chocolate?  the trend does seem to be moving towards flavoured chocolates more.

And the event finished with a cocoa auction (I had to sit on my hands through that!) and then a rather surreal finale of an opera singer, accompanied by a harpist, singing arias she had matched to different chocolates.  This felt so very, well Dutch, really!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Making progress with our bean to bar

We are making progress with our steep learning curve on making chocolate from cocoa beans (bean to bar), although we still have a long way to go!  Limitations are both equipment and technique, but bit by bit we are understanding more about this incredible process.

We have been hand roasting small batches of about 2kg of beans at a time, still using a domestic oven and still playing around with temperatures and times.  A recent trip to visit Duffy Sheardown taught me much and adopting his 'roasting test' I have been able to be much more consistent with roasting, and recently we were able to process over 10kg of beans in one batch.

We also made a major breakthrough in winnowing last month; I have been reading about and pricing small winnowers, and dreaming about a faster way of removing those pesky cocoa shells.  Meanwhile every small batch we have done, I ended up peeling by hand.  Faced with the 10kg of beans (an order for an event in March) we knew we had to do something and I had another go at the 'hairdryer and bowl' technique much talked about on DIY bean to bar chat forums (such fun!); I had found this uneffective and messy when I first tried it, but maybe desparation or guided by a cocoa angel - this time around I seemed to get the knack!  Still messy (eye goggles and screening off half the workshop a necessity) but as the video below shows - it really does work and reduces a task to one day, that would have taken us 2 weeks by hand.

So, a production process developed:  we cracked the beans with a rolling pin (no technology too complicated here!) and then into the 'winnowing corner' and we have beautiful clean cocoa nibs ready to go into the grinder!

And then into the grinder for 3 days, left to mature for 3 to 4 weeks and then tempered and moulded into bars, and ready to go!  From bean to bar in 4 to 5 weeks.  

Friday, 1 July 2016

The prickly case of Gorse flower and that elusive scent

I am sure you are familiar with that wonderful heady coconut aroma that hangs heavy over a patch of gorse, resplendent in gold yellow flowers in early summer?  It has teased me over the years - I have tried to capture this in chocolate for a number of years now - all to no effect.

It is a prickly challenge as well - gorse (Ulex europaeus) flowers are tightly clumped on prickle covered stems.  Picking them requires precision; wearing gloves makes fingers too clumsy to remove the flowers, and I realise that my little finger is raised as if drinking tea with the Queen, as I focus on using thumb and forefinger to pluck out the flower, and attempt to keep my other fingers as far as possible from the needlelike spikes.

Undaunted, each spring I watch out for a good sunny day, dry and warm, hopefully building up those gorgeous aromas.  I seek the most aromatic shrubs, and set to with my prickly task.  I take the flowers home, still warm from the sun and immerse them in melted cocoa butter in an effort to capture that fabulous flavour.  I know it will work well with chocolate - we all know coconut works well with chocolate!

I have left these flowers to infuse for varying amounts of time - from hours to days.  Leave them too long and they start to rot a little - not a pleasant concept; but all to no avail - all I get is a cocoa butter with a slight floral teint.  No coconut.

So I tried infusing in cream for a ganache; again, no coconut.  I have been doing this every spring since I started making chocolates!  A couple of years ago, I came across Chocolarder, a chocolate maker  in Cornwall who uses gorse flowers to flavour chocolate - and it was just as I imagined it would be; lovely coconut macaroon flavour.  I wrote to the chocolate maker, and he introduced me to a new word 'enfleurage';  on looking this up I realised that this was a fancy name for what I had been doing already - but there were a number of ways of approaching it and I had only been practising 'hot enfleurage';  there was a cold version as well - maybe this was the solution?

The following year, brimful of optimism, I tried this alternative technique; picked flowers and laid them between thin wafer layers of set cocoa butter.  Left them for a week or two - but wildly disappointed to find that there was still no coconut.

I began to wonder whether we had a sub-species of gorse in this area that has no aroma; or maybe the weather never gets warm or humid enough?

One last try this year, and a glorious warm spell of weather in May - surely this must have been ideal?  But no - I was to be disappointed again.  In one last attempt I tried a ganache - a cream infusion of flowers, combined with milk chocolate.  As I feared, no hint of coconut, but this time, maybe because I was giving up on coconut, I allowed myself to just taste the resulting ganache and stop focussing on one flavour.  I realised that the ganache tasted like honey, with a slightly peppery edge and full of caramel.  It was amazing!

I have introduced it into the early summer selections and it has been very well received; and conversations with customers about it have revealed that I am not the only one that finds the coconut aroma elusive.

So lesson learned; I need to taste with an open mind, and don't fixate on one flavour. Here's to next year's gorse season.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

First steps in bean to bar

My own bean to bar journey started with what felt like a really random event.  I was doing a stall at the Rob Roy Challenge in Kenmore; it had been a slow afternoon and by the end of the afternoon as I was packing up, a couple came over and started talking to me about cocoa beans and chocolate; did I make my own chocolate from beans?  (no, but would love to)  would I like some to experiment with – they have some in the back of the car!  Jocelyn and Aixa have a cocoa farm in Panama and these were their first beans and they were in UK to test the market for fine beans.

The beans are delicious – just crunching in to one is enough to tell you that they will make yummy chocolate.  So a plan was hatched; I would buy myself a late congratulations present for the awards received earlier that year, invest in a wet grinder, and set aside some time to experiment.  The week of Perthshire Open Studios in September felt perfect; during the week I am unable to do normal production anyway, so could have this bean to bar process take over the workshop.   Visitors could learn about the process, as well as help out if they wished!


I had bought the wet grinder from HB Ingredients, who also had instructions on their website.  They recommended roasting at about 120C for 25 minutes or so, and I had received some advice from Jocelyn and Aixa about roasting time as well.  My plan was to experiment with each batch and see what worked.

First problem; what temperature really was my oven at?  I might set it to 120C but was that the actual temperature?  It is very old – probably over 25years old, a fan oven,  Duffy had told me that they should smell of brownies when done, so we all stood in the kitchen nostrils alert to aromas from the oven.  After 20 minutes we opened the oven to check – were they ‘singing’ (the water in the bean escaping the shell), had the shells come loose?, how intense does the brownie smell need to be?  I was already realising that simple words on a page belied a complex process, and subsequent conversations and research support this.  It is a little like Mrs Beeton  simply and helpfully saying ‘first take your rabbit’.

So fearful of over-roasting (number one cardinal sin) we pulled the beans out after 25 mins.  In the second batch I kept tabs on the oven temp with a thermometer and learnt that the oven was far cooler than the dial was set to.

Peeling and winnowing

If I thought ‘roast the beans for 25 mins until they smell of brownies’ was an understatement I was soon to learn that ‘peel and winnow the beans’ was an even greater one.  We followed HB’s instructions to crush the beans in a bag with a rolling pin – easy enough – but then were faced with this ‘Aesop tale type task of removing the shells and separating the broken cocoa beans from the papery covering.   The shell did not leave the bean as easily as was intimated; we ended up peeling them.  There were hidden pleasures in this – when you manage to keep the whole bean entire and reveal a beautiful dark shiny complete bean rather than have it crumble into nibs in your fingers.  They looked like chocolate pecans almost, little convoluted folded coyledons of the new seedling.  Such small triumphs though did little to diminish the tedium of peeling those beans.  This was fast becoming a sticking point.

At least in hand peeling we were able to separate most of the papery shell from the nibs; Aixa had asked if we could keep the shells as the folk in Panama infuse them in rum to make a liqueur (this in itself is enough to keep you going?).  However, there were lots of fragments mixed in to the nibs and we needed to winnow them out.  The HB oracle suggested a hair dryer and without really thinking about it – I thought the skins would be lighter and just blow away – I started to ‘mimic’ winnowing I had seen in Africa and Nepal; pouring the grain from one container to another but from a height  so that the wind would carry the lighter stuff away and the heavier would fall into the waiting vessel.  Only the wind was replaced by a hairdryer – clearly my first mistake – a bit like winnowing in a typhoon!  The skin did fly away, but so did the nibs!  The workshop covered in cocoa nibs and skin – after all that tedious peeling!  So, I turned to the fan, but this was not strong enough to blow anything away.  I looked on the internet for more advice and read about the ‘dogbowl’ technique.  A deepish bowl, blow air into it and the lighter stuff comes up over the edges.  This worked to a degree but I still found that the smaller nib pieces were as light as the shells and I seemed to be losing a lot this way.  ‘Winnowing’ never has such a simple concept been so misleading.  NO wonder those winnowing machine cost so much!


After all that – the rest is actually simple and straightforward; the machine takes over.  The machine is extraordinary – I could not believe how well it worked – it just kept going – whirring away in the corner of the room in a quiet competent way.  I am in love with it – machines that do what they are supposed to and don’t make a fuss, after all that peeling and winnowing, calm was restored and we just had to wait and see.

Within a few hours the chocolate paste was a little gritty but very liquid and a beautiful colour.  I had to keep checking the temperature and using the hair dryer to bring it back up to over 45C.  I positioned table lamps over it in an effort to warm it but of course modern low energy light bulbs do not give off much heat!  I dug out an old heat lamp that we had used to nurse some chicks with – but the heat was too low to make much difference to the chocolate, but did keep it between 45 and 50 – and gave a beautiful glow.  At the end of the first day, after about 4 hours of grinding – we had a light gritty and a little unpolished tasting chocolate – but it felt like it was on its way.  I did not want to leave the machine on overnight so turned it off and emptied the chocolate out.

We set it to grind again at 8 the next morning, and by mid morning was amazed to discover that the grit had gone – it was smooth!  I knew that  it would need considerably more grinding and tried to increase the temperature as much as I could to ‘conch’ the chocolate, but could never really get it any higher than 55C, and that was with holding the hairdryer which I could only do for a limited time!  The chocolate kept warmer if I kept the lid on, but I thought I would not get any of the loss of off notes that I had read should happen in the conching process – so even though I could not get the temperatures – just the warm, constant turning and open to the air might do that.

We did this through to day 3, another 12 hours in the machine and then I was eager to get on with a second batch and decided to call it a day.    From 1500g of beans, we had created 1000g of chocolate – an 80% having added only a small amount of sugar.  I tempered it and moulded into small 5g caraques and 30g bars.  And could barely wait the few hours till it could be turned out and eaten.  Our very first made from scratch chocolate.

It is the most transformative process; on subsequent days that week, I was able to offer people the original unroasted bean and then a taste of the chocolate made from it.  It is hard to bridge the gap between the two – how did one transform into the other?  We made two more batches that week, experimenting with roasting times and also with the degree of winnowing.  The second batch we meticulously peeled and separated; the third batch was much more slapdash.  I have subsequently had conversations with others about peel and indeed the ‘stalk’; the peel contains any contaminants, it has some fat but not much and so reduces the ratio of fat) it has many of the off notes.
But on the whole I am pleased with what we did; I love the chocolate itself – which is full of flavor and not too bitter and is a lovely texture.  I took samples of it to Olympia (see The Chocolate Show post) and tested it on some of the experts, who were nice enough to try it and give me feed back;  we all agree the beans are wonderful, the temper was good (one thing I can do!), a little over roasted maybe – but on the whole – a good start

The Chocolate Show, Olympia October 2015

A fairly last minute decision to take a stall at this annual festival of all things chocolate, led to a couple of weeks of intense chocolate making preparation, long days polishing, tempering, wrapping; falling into bed in the small hours exhausted, only to wake an hour or two later fretting about whether I needed another batch of Smoked Heb Sea salt and Java; how much would I need?  I had no idea. 

By the time I got to the sleeper to travel down to London, I was almost too tired to fully appreciate the way traveling on the sleeper always makes a journey seem like such an adventure.  I slept well, and woke to London, beautiful in autumnal crispness.

The Show was being held at Olympia, a first time visit for me and a revelation – we were in the National Hall; a huge space with beautifiul glass curved roof, and a deep wide first floor balcony all around it.  I was a few hours early – but to my amazement, the place looked extremely unready!  Some stalls were up but few were dressed or occupied.  There were crews of people all over the place focused on their own part of the busy ant hill that was getting it all ready.

I found my stall – as always in the ‘dark corner’ – furthest corner of the show, tucked away.  Not really, we were in good company - The International Chocolate Awards Winners Zone (lots of very lovely chats with Beverley), with their stand opposite, and The Highland Chocolatier across the way, and next door to Gustolato, both multi award winners.

My stock and display materials were being brought down from Scotland by Ali and Freddie of The Chocolate Tree and Julie of The Highland Chocolatier, both coming in vans.  This was such a blessing – and a tangible benefit of the collaboration we are fostering through the Scottish Chocolatiers Network.  As the afternoon progressed they both arrived and we helped unpack and then I set about ‘dressing’ my stall.  My lovely sister in law Anna had come to help me and was slowly initiated into the world of chocolate and bean-to-bar;  she grew to be haunted by this phrase over the weekend and told me that she woke up in the night with the mantra ‘bean-to-bar’ running through her head!

Slowly other chocolate making friends arrived over the afternoon – it is a smallish world, but growing fast. People I knew already – Duffy and Penny Sheardown (always so generous with time, advice, moral support, battery charger thingies, and just all round loveliness), Aneesh, Neena and Kirti Popat, Spencer from Cocoa Runners – all of whom who have at different stages of my own chocolate journey been significant ‘wayfarers’.   One of the aspects of the weekend that really excited me was meeting many of the names I had become so familiar with through my regular internet and Twitter voyeuristic trawls of what is new on the scene.  Omnom, Original Beans, Doble & Bignall, Marou, Damson, Ika, Seaforth, Forever Cacao, Chocolat Madagascar, Choconord, Paul A Young (another sea buckthorn fan), Mathieu du Gottal… to name but a few.

The weekend was extraordinary – exhausting in many ways and by Sunday I thought I was going to lose my voice;  in addition to days spent explaining my own particular take on chocolate and answering the continual questions ‘ooh, what is a Charlotte Flower?’, my evenings were spent talking cocoa; conversations about $100 chocolate bars, barrel aged cocoa, nib-to-bar, bean-to-bar, perfect roasting times, off notes, my white chocolate dilemma

I have come away feeling very much more connected to this scene, and hope to have found some new customers along the way.  I am indebted to two extraordinary women – my sister Jessica and sister in law Anna, who both with boundless energy and good humour offered chocs, answered questions, encouraged people to try something new, became fluent in this bizarre world of fine chocolate and were just all round wonderful.